Florida ports are rebounding after COVID-19 plunge in cargo business

By Jim Turner

News Service of Florida

Jul 27, 2021 11:52 AM

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TALLAHASSEE — Cargo trade fell $14.1 billion at Florida seaports last year as the COVID-19 pandemic initially slowed consumer and business demand and caused supply chain problems, according to an industry report released Tuesday.

But Florida port leaders say business has rebounded and they see opportunities for growth in what the report describes as the “emerging post-pandemic world.”

Recovery will take longer for the multibillion-dollar passenger cruise industry at the state’s ports, as ships are just now starting to return to sea after being shut down early in the pandemic.

“We knew it was going to hit (cargo) and cruise — obviously with that being shut down — but cargo was, you know, obviously, a little bit of a rude awakening, to see the impact on that,” Florida Ports Council President and CEO Michael Rubin said. “But the good news, again, is that cargo is back up, and it seems to be doing well.”

The report, released by the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, said cargo operations are expected to completely recover by the end of this year.

“Most of the declines in 2020 occurred during the first six months of the year at the height of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19,” the report said. “Fall 2020 saw robust recovery in many sectors. 2021 is expected to see a near complete recovery in terms both of cargo volume and cargo value as post-pandemic markets and supply chains regain stability and consumer confidence returns in line with the relaxing of economic constraints.”

Rubin attributed the growth in cargo operations to increased demand for construction materials and people returning to traveling on the roads and by air.

“People are buying stuff, certainly to a level that they were doing it beforehand and whether they have revenue on hand or not,” Rubin said.

The ports council estimated the virus last year caused the loss of about $23 billion in economic activity tied to ports, affecting some 169,000 port-related jobs.

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While cargo operations have rebounded, getting back the pre-pandemic growth in the cruise industry in Florida might take “a few years,” the development council report said. But the industry expressed optimism.

“Despite the significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cruise activity worldwide, the fundamentals of the industry remain strong,” the report said, pointing to “the combination of pent-up demand and widespread vaccinations.”

Cruise lines have started to provide limited passenger-paying “revenue runs” as operators determine if evolving federal COVID-19 protocols are working.

Disney Cruise Line has announced plans to resume its Florida cruises on Aug. 9.

Norwegian Cruise Line, engaged in a lawsuit with the state over passenger vaccination requirements, is set to return to sailing in Florida on Aug. 15. Carnival Cruise Line is booking passengers for voyages out of Florida ports starting the second week of October.

PortMiami, Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades are the major cruise homeports, with passenger ships operating at Port Tampa Bay, Port of Palm Beach, Port of Key West and Jaxport.

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